The resurgence of the Lib Dems should have the Conservatives worried.

tim-farron-getty
Tim Farron’s party surged into second place in the Witney by-election. 

Yesterday, the residents of Witney cast their votes in a by-election to decide who would succeed former Prime Minister David Cameron as the constituency’s Member of Parliament. As a safe Conservative seat, Witney was rated the tenth safest Conservative seat following the 2015 General Election, the result of this by-election was never really in doubt. However, what everyone was watching for was how Theresa May’s new Conservative Party would do in David Cameron’s old constituency; and in the first electoral test following the EU Referendum, how would the opposition parties fare.

As expected, the Conservative Party retained the seat, with Councillor Robert Courts winning 17,313 votes for a majority of 5,702. However, although this seems like a comfortable win, when compared to the result in this constituency in the 2015 General Election, it is anything but.

In the 2015 General Election, David Cameron won a huge 35,201 votes, which led to a very safe majority of 25,155. Admittedly given that this was only a by-election, and that the country at large is suffering from electoral fatigue, the turnout was quite low (just 46.8% compared to 73.3% in 2015). However, it is the percentage of the vote which is significant. In 2015, David Cameron won 60.2% of the votes in Witney. Yesterday, Robert Courts won just 45%, a huge fall from 2015.

The main cause of this has been attributed to a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats who won just 6.8% of the vote in 2015, but managed to increase this to 30.2% yesterday. This resurgence tallies with the Liberal Democrats’ surge in party membership following the EU Referendum, where they were the only party to come out in favour of a second referendum. Party figures suggested that in the days after the referendum, the Liberal Democrats gained 15,000 new members, and their membership has continued to grow since. This is perhaps due to a combination of reasons, but chief among these is the Lib Dems pro-European stance, as well as the centrists who supported the Conservatives in 2015, flocking to a different party due to dissatisfaction with the more right-wing new Government.

Given that Witney is a constituency which voted 53.7% in favour of remaining in the European Union, and the Conservative candidate Robert Courts supported Vote Leave, the Liberal Democrats made a big thing about their pro-European stance in this referendum, and it appeared to pay dividends as they surged past Labour into second place.

This huge swing of 19.3% to the Lib Dems could statistically wipe out the current Conservative majority in the House of Commons were to it be replicated across the country. Statistically speaking there are twenty-six seats where the Conservative advantage over the Liberal Democrats is less than this, and where they could therefore prosper in a general election. Of course, we must consider the fact that the Liberal Democrats absolutely threw the kitchen sink at this by-election in a way that would be impossible in a full on general election. Party Leader Tim Farron made five visits to Witney over the course of the by-election campaign. In a full general election campaign there is no chance that he would have the time to do this, and in addition the Liberal Democrats would not be able to commit as many party staff to a single constituency.

However, the result of this by-election is telling in several ways. Given how the Conservative have underperformed relative to their polling numbers, it shows that the Government isn’t nearly as popular as polling has suggested, and that the Government’s current haphazard handling of Brexit has lost them some support. In addition, it further shows the malaise affecting the Labour Party, which has the potential to lose them their place as the main parliamentary opposition. Labour suffered a significant reduction in their share of the vote, falling back into third place. It is realistic to suggest that many centrist or left of centre voters who may typically have voted Labour in this by-election, were put off my the way Jeremy Corbyn has dragged the party to the left, and so instead cast their vote in favour of the Lib Dems.

Overall, this result suggests the Theresa May is not as close to the political centre as she seems to think. Whether voters are put off my the government’s handling of Brexit, or whether it is policies like the expansion of grammar schools which is causing the problem, we don’t know. But what is certain is that Theresa May has to do a lot more to appeal to the centre if she wants to be Prime Minister in the long term. This is something David Cameron did particularly well, moving the Conservatives away from the divisive policies which resonated with their base, and instead moving them toward the political centre. By bringing back policies like grammar schools, Theresa May has done the opposite, and this could cost her dearly in the polls.

Senior Conservatives have suggested that the result is not so bad, because it was pretty much the same as what David Cameron was getting in his early days as an MP. This is true, David Cameron did also receive 45% of the vote in Witney in the 2001 General Election. However, they should consider the overall result of this election, which resulted in a huge Labour majority. Given that the share of the vote in safe seats often indicates the level of nationwide support for a party, the Conservatives should be very worried about this result. If they are only getting the same share of the vote that they got at a general election in which they suffered a devastating defeat, then what will the result be nationwide when a general election is next held?

Conservatives can perhaps take comfort from the unelectability and unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but they should by no means think that this guarantees them an increased majority at the next general election. With a current working majority of just sixteen, the government can’t afford to lose many seats, and so they should not be ignoring the significance of this result. The Liberal Democrats definitely have the potential to cause them serious harm in a general election.

In this by-election, the Liberal Democrats made a great play out of the fact that Witney voted Remain, yet the Conservative candidate had supported Leave. There are many other constituencies where the same is true, and the Lib Dems can use this to gain an advantage at a general election. Perhaps a better test than Witney of whether this surge will be replicated is the by-election which is probably forthcoming in Richmond Park, where Leave backing MP Zac Goldsmith is expected to resign and stand as an independent due to opposition to expansion of Heathrow Airport. This is a seat which the Liberal Democrats held from the seat’s inception in 1997 until 2010, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they could win it back in a by-election.

In any case, yesterday’s by election should give Theresa May food for thought. Although she has been keen to say that she doesn’t want to hold an early election, it is looking increasingly like she is going to have to. If this week’s House of Commons vote for chairof the Brexit Select Committee is any indication, MPs may not vote in favour of the government’s EU repeal bill. In this select committee vote, MPs overwhelmingly voted for Remain backing Hilary Benn to chair to committee as opposed to Leave supporter Kate Hoey. Were the government to lose this vote, it would effectively be a tacit vote of no-confidence in the government. This would allow Theresa May to call and early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It is only then that we will see just how much the political landscape has been altered as a result of the EU Referendum. One thing’s for sure, as the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Witney, Liz Leffman, said last night: “The Liberal Democrats are definitely back in business”.

Getting Theresa May’s grammar school policy through Parliament won’t be a walk in the park for the Government.

If Theresa May is serious about her misguided plans for new grammar schools (and her words in Saturday’s Daily Mail seem to suggest that she’s deadly serious) then she has a serious fight on her hands.

The Conservatives currently have a working Parliamentary majority of just seventeen. This means that in theory, they should be able to pass this policy into law with ease. However, this ignores several key points.

Firstly, although the expansion of grammar schools has long been a policy which works well to excite the base of the Conservative Party, it is not an issue which the Parliamentary Party universally agree upon. Several high-profile members of the Cameron administration (including the ex-PM himself) harbour serious doubts about the wisdom of allowing new grammar schools to open. It was for these reasons that David Cameron didn’t pursue the opening of new grammar schools whilst he was in Government. Former Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan criticised the government’s plans this week, saying: “I believe that an increase in pupil segregation on the basis of academic selection would be at best a distraction from crucial reforms to raise standards and narrow the attainment gap and at worst risk actively undermining six years of progressive education reform.” It is well known that this view is shared by Mrs Morgan’s predecessor as Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Both Morgan and Gove remain very influential amongst the modernising wing of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, and so don’t be surprised if they work to derail the Prime Minister’s plans. After all, both are still smarting after being sacked from the Cabinet in Theresa May’s July reshuffle.

Morgan’s reservations were echoed by Neil Carmichael, the head of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, who said that the grammar school policy could, “distract us from our fundamental task of improving social mobility.” With no fewer than five other Conservative MPs having already expressed reservations about the plans, and current Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening not appearing wild about the idea, the Government’s majority is suddenly beginning to look very slim indeed.

Add to this the fact that the introduction on new grammar schools was not a part of the Conservative Party’s 2015 General Election manifesto, and the prospect of the policy passing through Parliament begins to look even more improbable. The Salisbury Convention means that, as a general rule, the House of Lords do not oppose the passage of legislation which has been promised in a party’s winning election manifesto. However, opening new grammar schools was not promised in the Conservative election manifesto. UKIP were in fact the only party who campaigned upon a platform of opening new grammar schools. This means that the House of Lords have free rein to reject the bill. Seeing as the Conservative Party do not have a majority in the House of Lords, it is to be expected that Labour and Liberal Democrat peers would be successful in voting down the bill.

In addition, although opinion polls suggest that the public are in favour of new grammar schools being opened, there hardly seems to be public clamour for the policy. In his column in Sunday’s Observer, Andrew Rawnsley suggested that the polls were misleading and simply suggested high support for grammar schools because most people don’t know what grammar schools really are, and what more of them would actually mean. This seems to be a somewhat accurate analysis. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be to poll the electorate on their support for the return of Secondary Moderns, the hated institutions where those who didn’t get into a grammar school ended up. Although Theresa May has said that new grammar schools would not mean a return to Secondary Moderns, it is hard to see what else it could mean. When this becomes clear, it would be unsurprising to see poll numbers in support of new grammar schools fall rapidly.

Overall, this plan seems a complete waste of time for Theresa May and her Government. The chances of getting it through Parliament appear slim at best. Ultimately, if she really wants to open new grammar schools then she will need to call an early election to gain her own mandate for the plans. Yes, that early election that the Prime Minister keeps insisting she won’t be calling.

Alternatively, she could continue governing and aim for some actual reform rather than a rehashed policy aimed purely at appeasing the Conservative Party base.

The government’s support for new grammar schools is misguided.

Whilst proponents of grammar schools argue that they increase academic attainment and social mobility, this is not really the case.

On Saturday, The Telegraph reported that Theresa May was set to reverse the ban on new grammar schools first introduced by Tony Blair in 1998, with the change possibly being announced as early as the Conservative Party conference in October.

Such a change in policy will delight Conservative backbenchers who grew frustrated throughout David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister over his refusal to budge on the issue, as he focused on the expansion of the existing academy system instead. It also seems as though the public would support an end to the ban on new grammar schools with polling conducted by ORB for The Sunday Telegraph finding that 49 per cent of adults agree that the ban on new grammar schools should end, whilst 23 per cent disagree.

The proponents of grammar schools argue that selective schools increase academic attainment. Graham Brady, the Chairman of the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee quit David Cameron’s shadow frontbench in 2007 over the then-Leader of the Opposition’s opposition to the expansion of grammar schools. Upon news that the current government planned to end the ban on new grammar schools, Brady stated that this move would ‘raise standards in state education’. However, is this really the case?

Whilst it is true that in areas with selective education, those who get into the selective schools do better, there is little evidence that educational attainment improves across the board. Indeed, whilst those who get into grammar schools tend to do better academically, those who miss out on a place at a grammar school tend to do considerably worse. A study for The Centre for Market and Public Organisation at the University of Bristol found that: “Overall there is little or no impact upon attainment, but those educated in grammar schools do substantially better (around four grade points more than pupils with the same Key Stage 2 points in similar, but non-selective areas). This is equivalent to raising four GCSEs from a grade ‘C’ to a ‘B’. Other children within selective areas who do not gain a place in a grammar school are disadvantaged by a little under one grade point.” This suggests that in areas with selective education, those who fail to make the grade for a place at a grammar school are subsequently left behind by the system. This is reinforced by a 2013 article by the Financial Times where data suggested that overall attainment is lower in areas with selective education systems.

The issue of the attainment of students in selective areas who study at non-grammar schools, isn’t helped by the fact that in areas with selective schooling, non-grammar schools find it difficult to recruit high-quality teaching staff. This means that those who fail to pass the 11-plus and gain entrance to a grammar school, face a far harder task when it comes to future educational achievement. Therefore, the introduction of new grammar schools would be hugely at odds with our current educational orthodoxy of equality of opportunity. And, given that selective schools seem to have little positive effect upon overall attainment, is there really much point in introducing new grammar schools?

Another favourite argument of the proponents of grammar schools is that they are a vehicle for social mobility. Their argument is that as a result of grammar schools, poorer children are able to access a quality of education which would otherwise only be available in a private school. However, although in theory this is true, it remains the case that poorer children are far more likely to miss out on a place at grammar school than wealthier children. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, by the time of taking the 11-plus exam, there is already a significant educational divide between children from poorer families and children from wealthier families. Children from poorer families are more likely to be behind at the age of eleven, and consequently are less likely to gain a place at a grammar school by passing the 11-plus. Secondly, the 11-plus is not an appropriate way for selecting who gains a place in a grammar school as it gives an unfair advantage to those from wealthier families. Parents living in selective schooling areas have been known to spend huge amounts of money on tutors who can coach their children to pass the 11-plus and gain a place at a grammar school. This option is not available for those children from poorer families, meaning that the tests are further skewed against them. Ultimately, this means that grammar schools contain a disproportionate amount of children from wealthier families, at the expense of those from poorer families for whom the tests are rather unfair. Although it is true that some children from poorer families are successful, the majority are hindered by the system and miss out on any benefits. This is illustrated by the fact that so few grammar school pupils are eligible for free school meals when compared with the national average. Overall grammar schools are clearly not the vehicle for social mobility they are often heralded as.

Ultimately, grammar schools do little to improve overall academic attainment and do little for social mobility. Therefore, there seems little reason for the current ban on grammar schools to be overturned by the government. As well as the fact that grammar schools offer little gain in terms of attainment and social mobility, in the modern world it is wrong to make a judgement on who will likely be academically successful and who will not be, at the age of just eleven. Under a grammar system, the academic talents of those who fail an exam at the age of eleven are wasted, rather than allowing late developers more of a chance to develop and find their academic niche. Rather than select at eleven, academic streaming within a comprehensive school is a far better system.

Grammar schools were originally scrapped because they did not work, and the result following their reintroduction would only be more of the same. All that would happen is that the existing problems of the education system (those of children from wealthier families doing disproportionately better than children from poorer families) would be exacerbated.

Theresa May and Justine Greening should not fall into the trap of pandering to Conservative backbenchers by ending the ban on new grammar schools. To do so would only serve to worsen inequality in education and reduce attainment overall. Instead, they should focus upon improving standards in existing state schools. Over the past few years many state schools have been pulling ahead of private schools in terms of academic attainment (which raises questions over whether the aim of grammar schools to provide private school quality, is desirable any longer), and continued investment can ensure that this continues. In addition, the government needs to work out how to reverse the worrying trend of people not wanting to become teachers, with it being crucial to ensure the brightest and best are around to teach the next generation.

Overall, for our education system, grammar schools are not the answer.